Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Local and National Perspectives on Social Media and PR Education

It was an interesting coincidence that the Grand Rapids Business Journal had a local article about West Michigan colleges not offering social media degrees in the same week that the Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) PR Division tackled the subject in the current issue of the Teaching Public Relations (TPR) monograph.

The Business Journal article (self disclosure: I write the "PR and Media" blog for GRBJ.com) noted that it "checked in" with all local colleges and universities and that none offer a social media degree. The article included perspectives from faculty at only two of the colleges--Calvin and Davenport--but the comments were relatively universal--that there is not enough substance to offer a full degree or even a course in social media, that existing theory and practice can and should be applied and adapted to social media, and that social media concepts and assignments can be integrated into existing courses.

That matches the national scale views of educators as well as practitioners as reported in the TPR monograph. Professors are cautioned not to get caught up in chasing "shiny new objects" or bogged down in the tactical how-to instruction for each new app and platform. Some of these tech tools advance so rapidly that professors would have to change syllabi several times a semester. 

It was encouraging to read in the monograph that practitioners encouraged professors to teach theory--existing PR and communications theory as well as recent research on social media use and affects--before blending that knowledge with practice. Students should learn not just how to use social media, but how to use it on behalf of businesses, nonprofit organizations, and other clients. This changes the consideration of how to teach social media--professionally, with strategic insight fueled by empiricism and theory and not mere tactical proficiency.

Some of those "old" concepts that need to be applied to social media practice? Here's a quick run-down of concepts and principles that have been taught in existing courses for years:
  • Research--students should be taught how to use social media to gain knowledge of public attitudes, issues, trends. 
  • Objectives--don't just use social media because it's new and cool. We saw a lot of disasters when web sites were new. Have measurable objectives, as in what you want to accomplish for an organization in terms of public awareness, attitude, or actions in response.
  • Strategy--who you reach out to, how you reach them, what you say, the frequency with which you say it, what platforms you choose--all of these and other questions should be carefully considered given the objectives above. If you don't have a strategy, you are just pushing content into the crowded social space. Some old and newer theories are the basis of smart strategy in social media.
  • Tactics--we do teach tactics in existing courses. Social media should be seen as supplementing and not necessarily replacing existing communication tools. Also, social can be integrated with them and courses updated to include them, such as a media relations class now including social media and multi-media news releases, pitching bloggers, integrating hashtags at events and other ideas.
  • Evaluation--I would argue that the emphasis on evaluation has received as much buzz as social media in PR circles. Students need to know that clients, colleagues, and bosses will expect this. This is true of all PR efforts, but particularly social media. Research shows many executives still see social as a frivolous waste of time. Students need to know how to prove the affect of their social media efforts in terms of meeting organizational objectives.
Of course, I'm open to change. In 2006 when Twitter was new, I was the one telling students about it. Now students tweet me before I've had them in a class, and they reach out on many other platforms. I didn't see Twitter and other social media coming or becoming this popular. There may come a day when I have to throw out the syllabus and craft an entire course on social media. 

Then again, the time may come when such a suggestion sounds as ridiculous as having a full course on the fax machine.

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